Clara Shelton

Why is Country Music so White?

Brad Paisley may have just realized he has been living his life as an “Accidental Racist,” but the issue of race has always been a part of country music. Country music performers who have achieved success on the charts and with major record labels are almost completely white. It is hard to judge how many African American fans the genre has but based on the turnouts at concerts and festivals they seem overwhelmingly white as well. This cannot simply be attributed to it being “the music of the South” because as everyone knows, the South is not made up of solely white people. Throughout history, country music has tried to justify its whiteness by pointing out specific black performers in an “I’ve got a black friend, so I’m not racist” kind of way. For a person conscious of this discrepancy, it seems to be a massive elephant in the room at country music concerts, festivals and on the radio. Why does this exist? Does the absence of people of color in country music make the music racist? How can this be remedied? What does it say on a larger scale?

First, a bit of history: As early as 1737 there are notices in Southern newspapers of slaves who had run away and were carrying “fiddles” or were described as “good fiddlers.” Nick Tosches in Country believes this shows that African Americans were already playing “fiddling music,” a precursor to contemporary country music. Early country music was born out of minstrelsy and performers in blackface performing “hillbilly” songs were quite popular at the turn of the century. Blackface and the usage of previously common words such as “darkey,” “coon,” and “nigger” in lyrics were mostly gone by the end of the 1930s, but by that point, country was already a whitewashed genre.

While African American influence in jazz, blues, and gospel music is acknowledged and well publicized, this same influence exists in country without being mentioned nearly as often. Today, country’s African American legacy is seen through the instruments still played, as well as the style of music itself, which harkens back to the black fiddlers from slave times and other black musicians over the years. Bluegrass music is founded on the banjo, which originated in Africa and is still prominently featured in country music today. Bill Monroe, considered the father of bluegrass music, tried to emulate Arnold Shultz, a black musician, in his music and considers him one of the best musicians he ever heard. The Carter Family, the “First Family” of country music, learned their music-making style from a black guitarist named Lesley Riddle who exchanged songs and skills with the Carters over the years.

But something doesn’t quite add up here. If Monroe and the Carters learned how to play from and mimicked the styles of black musicians, then these black musicians should be considered the fathers of country music. Arnold Shultz played many gigs and had a following, but he never achieved fame like Monroe. Riddle produced some records near the end of his life, but while the Carter family was rising to spectacular fame, he worked many blue-collar jobs. Could race be the issue that kept them from becoming famous and receiving the credit they were due? While Monroe publicized and popularized the genre, the creation of this style of music can be attributed in many ways to black musicians. In this sense, the fathers of the music should really be Shultz and others like him, but instead the white performers who were made visible to listeners are the ones who receive the credit.

In the 20th and 21st centuries, a few black musicians have become extremely famous, providing a glimpse of a face for Africans Americans in country music. However, they have not been able to champion a movement that allows other black singers to rise to fame and increase the genre’s diversity. Such examples are Charley Pride, who has had 36 #1 hit singles and Darius Rucker, the only black musician currently signed to a major record label. However, two successful men are not enough to really talk about a black presence in country music. A genre of music professed by Richard Nixon to “make America better” and by George H. W. Bush in Forbes magazine in 1994 to “capture the essence of the American spirit” cannot simply have a token black performer. To make America better, the music must be representative of America and talk about America’s real, pertinent issues; the America that country represents is far from reality.

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Two album covers from country’s most famous people of color, Charley Pride (1974) and Darius Rucker (2010).

Beyond the people themselves, the themes found within country music do not do anything to broach the topic of race. Darius Rucker’s songs contain the same themes of family, whiskey drinking, heartbreak, and Southern culture (such as the food, chivalry, clothes) and the same avoidance of touchy subjects as those of any white artist. Obviously black performers have to play the same type of music to even be considered country musicians, but they could also use their fame to acknowledge the issues they face as black, Southern singers in a white industry. The commentary would not have to be a drastic statement that accuses all country music lovers and performers of being racist. Instead, in the same song where Rucker sings about all the things he loves about the South, he could throw in some lines about things that are not so rosy. Rucker could sing covers of Charley Pride and Leslie Riddle and call for more emphasis on the contributions of black artists to country music history rather than sing covers of the obviously racist (more on this later) Hank Williams, Jr, which he often does in concerts. He could call for a larger black audience and try to welcome more black fans and musicians into the country family.

Part of why artists like Rucker do not do this is undoubtedly fear that doing so will end their careers and alienate them even more from their predominantly white listeners. As the genre currently exists, it is easy to see why black fans and musicians may be reluctant to engage with country music; the culture of country music and some of its most famous singers and songs have been anything but inviting to black artists and fans.

Confederate flags are everywhere at country festivals and concerts. While the flag’s notoriety stems from its use in the Civil War as the symbol of the Confederate army, fighting to protect slavery, in the past 100 years it has also been used as a symbol of “Massive Resistance”–a kind of counter protest to the Civil Rights Movement. Now, the flag is prohibited from being displayed on public property, but that does not, by any means, signify that its private use has been eradicated. The flag is still flown and worn proudly by many southerners and country music fans across the nation.

Paisley notes in “Accidental Racist” that he only wore the flag on his shirt because it is part of the Lynyrd Skynyrd emblem. Paisley is allowed to love Lynyrd Skynyrd’s music, but it is also his responsibility to recognize the racism inherent in their music and gear and take that into account when he wears it proudly. As Mia McKenzie notes on her blog,” “…wearing a confederate flag on your t-shirt is a choice… If you know what the flag is and what it represents and you still put it on your body and walk around in it and get in front of a camera wearing it, that’s not an accident.”

It is easy to see Lynyrd Skynyrd’s display of the Confederate flag as a clear racist signal. However, country music expert Bill Malone posits that the “use of the Confederate battle flag and other rebel symbols as costume adornments and stage décor, and even Ronnie Van Zandt’s well-publicized defense of Alabama governor George Wallace (in “Sweet Home Alabama”), d[o] not necessarily connote racism or ethnocentric bigotry” but rather refer to “regional identity.” Regardless of how they appear to outsiders, he thinks that musicians such as Lynyrd Skynyrd use the flag imagery to show pride in the South as a geographic area and not everything the flag denotes. This may be true, but musicians need to understand everything the flag represents and recognize what sort of effect it might have on their audience. A band that uses the Confederate flag as its logo cannot expect to gain much support from people of color or white people who are uncomfortable with its meaning. Following this logic, Lynyrd Skynyrd must have had no interest in appealing to black audiences and must not have cared how they came across. The continued use of the flag today is a sign that says to people of color “you’re not welcome here.” Until this symbol is retired and tabooed with other racist symbols of the past, country music cannot expect to diversify its audience.

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One fan in the crowd during a Darius Rucker concert at the Stagecoach Music Festival in Indio, CA. Photo by Clara Shelton.

Beyond the various connotations of the Confederate flag, certain country artists have engaged in overt displays of racism and have not been penalized for these outbursts. One obvious example is Hank Williams, Jr.’s “If the South Woulda Won.” In this song, the main message is that if the South had won the Civil War, “we’d” be better off than “we” are now. His constant use of “we” makes it obvious that this song is only for him and his white friends to sing, and he never mentions how much worse off black people would be if the South had won and slavery had been everlasting. Beyond this undeniable racist attitude toward African Americans, Williams, Jr. also shows his ignorance with lines like, “I’d have all the cars made in the Carolinas, / And I’d ban all the ones made in China” which would be a problematic statement even if he weren’t trying to use China and Japan interchangeably. This man, who once compared President Barack Obama to Adolf Hitler and called him a “Muslim” who “hates cowboys,” remains one of the most famous singers in country music. In a world where common people can use social media outlets to slam inappropriate behavior by celebrities, country music fans have launched no campaign against Williams, Jr. for comments like these. This shows that many fans identify with Williams, Jr., enjoy the fact that someone is voicing their feelings, and simply do not care about his racist remarks.

In a climate like this, it makes sense that hardly any black musicians are famous. Why would any black person want to play music with people who are so openly prejudiced and terribly uninviting to people of color? It is no wonder that Darius Rucker does not try to start a serious conversation about this issue. He would be seen as an annoying “liberal” trying to “break tradition.”

So what, then, do we make of “Accidental Racist,” Brad Paisley’s self-proclaimed attempt at “having a conversation and trying to reconcile” race issues in the South? Paisley is a superstar with nothing to lose and should be talking about these issues with his music. However, his message is to forgive and forget–from both sides. Paisley wants African Americans to forgive slavery, Jim Crow, and other discriminatory behavior “of the past” and in return, white people will forgive the way black people dress, because clearly the way black people dress (already a massive generalization) affects white people the same way that Jim Crow affected black people. The “forgive and forget” argument is exactly the opposite of the conversation that needs to be taking place in country music. Country fans need to question its whiteness, talk about racism that is still occurring constantly, try to reconcile loving Southern culture and not being racist, and generally understand why country music is so unwelcoming to people of color and actively try to change that.

Unfortunately, it is not unreasonable to believe that white country fans who hear the song will not see how problematic it is. One look at YouTube comments confirms this sentiment. Many fans likely already see Paisley as an open-minded guy due to his song “American Saturday Night” in which he praises America’s multi-culturalism by singing about Italian ice, Beatles songs, Canadian bacon, German cars, Corona and Amstel beers, Chinatown and other bits of culture that happen to have another country’s name attached to them. These fans might see the inclusion of rapper LL Cool J in “Accidental Racist” as evidence of its legitimacy. LL Cool J has been criticized even harsher than Paisley for his willingness to rap lines such as “If you don’t judge my gold chains / I’ll forget the iron chains.” Due to the way country music deals with whiteness and blackness, one can assume that fans would say something along the lines of, “If LL Cool J can say that line, all black people must agree with him.” Just as Charley Pride in his time and Darius Rucker now are labeled the token black men of country music, LL Cool J is the token non-country singing black man who confirms Paisley’s feelings about racism. This must be remedied, but articles in liberal news sources like The Atlantic and on blogs that discuss racism from a black, liberal perspective will never reach a huge amount of country music’s fans.

The fact that LL Cool J appears in this song also goes along with a renewed interest in combining rap or hip hop and country genres. Supposedly country legend “John Rich once said Wyclef Jean told him Charlie Daniels’ “Devil Went Down to Georgia” was the first rap song.” As this blogger also notes, spoken word has long been a part of country music (See Johnny Cash’s “Boy Named Sue.”) These songs were made before rap was born and Daniels and Cash clearly weren’t trying to make any racial statement in that regard. In more recent times, Jason Aldean recorded the song “Dirt Road Anthem” which features him rapping and had Ludacris appear at the CMT Music Awards to perform it with him. Cowboy Troy, a black country-rap artist who was signed to a major Nashville label for a short time in the 2000s calls his music “hick-hop” and believes it “widen[s] the audience.” Cowboy Troy hasn’t become very famous, which may be in part due to his attempt at trying something brand new, rather than Rucker and Pride’s conformity to the Nashville sound. Collaborations between country and hip hop or rap are celebrated by audiences who love both genres and are loudly criticized by most other country fans, and again these momentary occurrences of crossed racial lines are never seen as opportunities to acknowledge the issue.

From all of this, one can conclude that country music–while attempting to profess its inclusiveness through black performers who do not veer from the norm–contains pervasive, overt racism in some of its songs, comments by its performers, and symbols it appropriates. Furthermore, when moments of overt racism occur in country music, nobody gets in trouble, showing that fans do not mind and even seem to enjoy this kind of setting. Country music has hidden its interracial history and only a few “token” black performers have risen to fame. This is not to mention the absence of other peoples of color and women of color. A more extensive look might consider the connections in sound and style of American country music and Native American and Mexican folk music and the significance of the most famous black country singers being male.

Who has the impetus to change this? As I have shown, people of color cannot be faulted for wanting to steer clear of a genre that does not seem to want them. White performers should be able to start this conversation, but unfortunately Brad Paisley thinks whites and blacks are equally to blame for racial conflict. Even if he didn’t, what incentive would he have to question the norms of country music? The Dixie Chicks ruined their whole career with one comment against President Bush and the war in Iraq. So where do we go from here? Country music is extremely proud of its “tradition” and wants to uphold it no matter what. Until someone can convince fans and songwriters to risk starting a riot by challenging this tradition, nothing will change.

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Suggested Readings:

Ching, Barbara. Wrong’s What I Do Best. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Jensen, Joli. The Nashville Sound: Authenticity, Commercialization, and Country Music. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1998.

La Chappelle, Peter. Proud to Be an Okie: Cultural Politics, Country Music, and Migration to Southern California. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.

Malone, Bill C. Don’t Get above Your Raisin’: Country Music and the Southern Working Class. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2002.

Malone, Bill C. and Jocelyn R. Neal. Country Music, U.S.A. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2010.

Mann, Geoff. “Why Does Country Music Sound White? Race and the Voice of Nostalgia.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 31:1 (2008).

Manuel, Jeffrey T. “The Sound of the Plain White Folk? Creating Country Music’s ‘Social Origins’.” Popular Music and Society 31:4 (Oct. 2008).

Pecknold, Diane. The Selling Sound: The Rise of the Country Music Industry. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007.

Tosches, Nick. Country: Living Legends and Dying Metaphors in America’s Biggest Music. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1985.

Wolff, Kurt. Country Music: The Rough Guide. London: Rough Guides Limited, 2000.

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